RALEIGH — The man who has overseen The News & Observers opinion pages for nearly a quarter century is stepping down.
Editorial page editor Steve Ford, 66, will retire in early December after leading the editorial department through the tumult of one more big election, publisher Orage Quarles III announced Wednesday.
Retiring at the same time will be associate editorial page editor Allen Torrey, 65.
Ford joined the newspapers staff as an editor in 1981 and has supervised the editorial department since 1989.
He reports to Quarles, as does executive editor John Drescher, who oversees news operations. The editorial and news departments are otherwise separate.
Over the years, Ford has written thousands of unsigned editorials and hundreds of weekly signed columns.
Almost invariably, he lays out his views in a calm, reasoned tone.
I dont believe in soft-pedaling around, and I dont think you should be afraid to offer a strong opinion or a sharp statement, Ford said. But I do try to keep things civil, and I think that is a characteristic of the editorial pages here, and that readers appreciate that.
He and two other members of the editorial department write the newspapers unsigned opinion pieces. Quarles, who approves each editorial page before its published, said readers will notice the loss, given Fords irreplaceable knowledge of topics that matter to them. There wont be major changes, though, in the nature of the editorial pages.
I dont think readers will notice a huge philosophical difference, Quarles said. I expect us to stick to our mission and be a progressive voice for the region and state.
Among other things, the department will be boosting its social media presence, he said.
You keep hearing the term reader engagement, and thats something thats important to us, he said.
Readers will lose, though, with Fords departure, Quarles said.
He had been around a long time and seen a great deal, and its a huge asset to have someone who remembers something that a politician said or did 20 years ago, he said.
Wasnt afraid to be dull
Fords lengthy tenure is unusual for any newspaper, said Ferrel Guillory, his predecessor in the job and now a professor at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication and director of the universitys Program on Public Life. Guillory noted that he himself held the job just eight years.
Fords work, Guillory said, was clearly informed by his service in Vietnam, by being a solid, rooted family man and by his long-standing interest in the environment.
Fords civility, Guillory said, is a contrast to the bombast, snarkiness and hype that too often characterize public discourse these days.
Steve was different in the sense that he didnt write the thunderbolt columns, he said. But in the time of social media, when anyone can sound off, he is your basic calm professional.
He wasnt afraid to be dull, and I say that not in a pejorative sense at all, but to say that he understood that its OK to be calm and rational and explore some issues at length.
Conservatives arent crying
Ford said the political affiliation of those who act badly isnt a factor in how theyre treated in the editorial pages.
As the newspaper covered the tribulations of various politicians in both parties over the years, I think we have been a strong voice for honesty and integrity in government, whether youre talking about Democrats or Republicans, he said.
Still, given Fords progressive views and his position overseeing editorial pages with a long history of liberal positions, he is scarcely a hero to conservatives.
Carter Wrenn, a veteran Republican political consultant, said that his biggest problem with Fords columns was that they seldom deviate from the standard liberal line.
I think many conservatives would say, well, hes a nice guy and its good that hes going, Wrenn said Part of that is that hes sort of an orthodox liberal, and he toes that all the way.
Ford came to The N&O as assistant city editor, helping oversee mainly state government news coverage for five years before he became an editorial writer in 1986. In 1989, he became the associate editor, the title then for his current role.
He started the column in 1992, and it has appeared almost every week since. The idea was to bring more transparency to the editorial pages by giving readers a sense of who was directing them, he said.
Sometimes the subjects touched on the personal, and long-time readers knew that he had been raised in Northern Virginia and graduated from Yale, served as an Army photographer in Vietnam, has three grown sons and has more than a passing interest in history.
Passion for public interest
Among his many targets with the column and editorials have been self-dealing politicians, factory-style hog farming that polluted the states air and water, the lottery, and anyone who didnt support what he regarded as proper levels of public funding for education.
He and the other editorial page writers, he said, also have highlighted the good works they felt added something positive to the community, the state and nation.
Ford said that he told Quarles in the spring that he wanted to retire after the election.
I saw this was an important election and I wanted to contribute, but I said that after that Im hanging it up, he said.
Ive used a bunch of images for this, but its kind of like jumping off a speeding train: You hope that its going to pull into a station, but it doesnt, so you pick a spot, jump, roll down into a gully and then stand up, pull yourself out of the briars and move on.
In this job, youre so engaged, theres always another issue you want to get involved with, but some time you have to let it go, and this seemed like a good time to do it.
Ford said that he looks forward to having time to travel more, as does his wife, Jeanne, a family law attorney in Cary. He wants to read a backlog of books that have piled up beside his bed, play the piano and keep at his running. He ran 10 miles the day before he turned 66, he said. Not very fast, though.
He said that he wants to stay engaged in public affairs and issues, but has no plan yet for how.
Quarles said he hasnt chosen replacements for Ford or for Torrey, who among other duties oversees the selection of letters to the editor and rides herd on the lineup of syndicated columns and local op-ed pieces.
Torrey also will be a big loss, Quarles said.
Hes just one of those really smart guys who has you look at things from a different viewpoint, he said.